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Strauss, Die Frau ohne Schatten, The Paris Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Ulf Schirmer (conductor), Opéra de Paris – Bastille, December 9, 2002 (FC)

Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Thomas Moser (tenor) – The Emperor
Susan Anthony (soprano) – The Empress
Jane Henschel (soprano) – The Nurse
Bjarni Thor Kristinsson (baritone) - A Spirit-Messenger
Karen Wierzba (soprano) - The Keeper of the Gages of the Temple
Johannes Chum (tenor) – Apparition of a Youth
Karen Wierzbe (soprano) – The Voice of the Falcon
Elizabeth Laurence (contralto) – A Voice from Above
Jean-Philippe Lafont (baritone) – Barak
Luana DeVol (soprano) – His Wife
Jochen Schmeckenbecher (bass) – The One-Eyed Brother
Scott Wilde (bass) – The One-Armed Brother
Doug Jones (tenor) – The Hunchback Brother
Robert Wilson (producer)

This is the fifth production for the Opéra de Paris for the former enfant terrible stage designer Robert Wilson. His first, a luminous and brilliant treatment of Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien from 1988, was profoundly impressive. Of late, however, one may ask if this artist’s inspirational cupboard is now bare. His cardboard cutout images of houses, his black floors and color field backdrops (usually blue) and his slo-mo Kabuki movements, are, after 20 years of viewing, becoming something of a cliché. The visual impact of his usually striking stage images is growing wan.

The paternity of this unhappy production must be laid at the feet of the current Paris Opera Intendant, Hughes Gall. It was his decision, ultimately, that oddly linked the Master of Cool with the turbulent, blood and thunder music of Richard Strauss’ sprawling masterpiece. The theme of biological sterility is here transmogrified into of emotional sterility and the contrast between the heart-on-the-sleeve music of Strauss and the frigid, minimalist stage images was jarring. Details of the production were not clear. A black bowling ball, but lighter, was passed around by the female cast. I assume this represented an ovum, which was also probably the significance of a large red ball which slowly descended down a black column (fallopian tube?) toward the sleeping Barak in Act II. It reminded this viewer of nothing so much of the Times Square ball on New Year’s night and I had to resist the urge to do the countdown.

Gall is also responsible for the casting, one assumes, when James Conlon, the principal conductor, is not in the pit. When Conlon is conducting, vocal quality is high and this is also the case in the baroque repertory when Marc Minkowski or William Christie are the invited maestros. Given the challenges of casting for this opera, Gall’s choice of singers had only a one in five success rate for the principal roles and a batting average of .200 doesn’t usually qualify a player for the major leagues. His sole success was the radiant Susan Anthony as the Empress. An impressive Senta in last year’s Flying Dutchman, she sang with power and real feeling, her clear, silvery soprano easily soaring above the overflowing orchestra pit.

Veteran American tenor Thomas Moser, with a voice now dry and uninflected, was struggling all night with the tessitura demands of his role of Emperor. California soprano Luana DeVol has developed an unpleasant wobble and often a shrill bark when singing above the staff. At this late stage in his career, baritone Jean-Philippe Lafont should be singing lighter fare rather than doing all the huffing and puffing that was needed for Barak. A fine singing actor (he has had roles in films), his thespian talents were wasted in this production which honors posturing rather than acting.

Jane Henschel, the announced Nurse, did not sing and mimed her movements due to a presumed indisposition. The singing was done by contralto Reinhild Runkel who was singing from a music stand stage left. It was an erratic and uneven delivery from a singer, whose Nurse, in the notable 1992 Die Frau recording with Solti, was more grounded and presumably more rehearsed. Since much of the glory of this work is found in the duets between the Empress and the Nurse, it was still another reason for the low voltage in this performance. There was good work from the comprimario roles including the three brothers, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Scott Wilde and Doug Jones. Johannes Chum was an impressive Apparition of a Youth and Elizabeth Lawrence was moving as a spectral Voice from Above.

Karl Böhm and Christoph von Dohnanyi were the conductors the last two times Die Frau was onstage at the Paris Opera. This time Ulf Schirmer was given the baton and managed a reading that never rose above ordinary. It sounded more like a "read-through" and the tutti passages were muddy.

To have the title of General Director of an opera in a major capitol city is to be a lightening rod for criticism. Hughes Gall, whose term as chief will end with the 2004-05 season, has presided over a period of financial stability and impressive growth in a town with a troubled operatic history. What is missing is the consistent artistic standards and attention to performance details that mark a great house. Gall’s "safe" casting choices are too often known commodities that have passed their prime. Frustrating minor incidents too often mar the opening night performance. In the First Act, the Emperor sang several bars of music before the follow-spot operator was nudged awake and found him in the general gloom. The offstage voices seemed to be sometimes in a tunnel, sometimes underground, sometimes too loud. Generally, there are too many minor technical glitches on stage, scenery changes are often noisy and the theater staff has permission to seat patrons minutes after the music has started. The new operas Gall selects – one is premiered every year – lack edginess and spark and will probably sink without a trace into operatic oblivion. The smaller efforts, like the sterling Martinu opera Juliette, ou La Clé des Songes last month, are occasionally accidental triumphs, with a cast of fine young French talent and an adventurous design team. Unfortunately the standard repertory is the usual victim of the prevailing slack standards. Gerard Mortier, the recent Bad Boy of the Salzburg Festival, will take over with the 2005-06 season. More lightening is in the forecast.

Frank Cadenhead

Susan Anthony as the Empress.
Photo credit: Eric Mahoudeau.

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